Imagine this scenario: You're ranked second in the world. You take sixth at the Olympic triathlon test race in Rio one year before the 2016 Games. But unfortunately, it's just not quite good enough to make the American Olympic team.
That was the weird position Katie Zaferes found herself in back in August. Rio de Janeiro was the stage for the first Olympic triathlon qualification race, and two Olympic berths were up for grabs for the American women, with the third to be awarded later. To claim a spot, an athlete had to be in the top eight overall at the highly competitive event.
Zaferes was sixth. But in front of her were two other U.S. women: Gwen Jorgensen, 29, who had won an unprecedented and unheard-of 11 World Triathlon Series races in a row, and Sarah True (née Groff), 33, who was the highest American finisher, in fourth, at the 2012 Olympics.
"We all want to be on the top of the podium," said Zaferes, who's 26. And lately, the American women have been taking up every spot on the podium.
There are currently six U.S. women ranked in the top 25 in the world by the International Triathlon Union (ITU). Leading that are the trio of Jorgensen, Zaferes and True, who are respectively ranked first, second, and third in the ITU World Triathlon Series, the highest level of international Olympic-distance racing. Those three have swept the podium at races twice this season -- a feat no country has ever accomplished before. As a whole, the U.S. women are so dominant right now that being the fourth-best American would still make you the best female triathlete in nearly any other country.
On Friday, the American women are expected to bring that red-white-and-blue show to the ITU World Triathlon Series Grand Final championship race in Chicago. It'll be the first time the championship is held in the U.S. -- and the first time the American women will go into the race on top.
The U.S. has always had relatively decent female triathletes, but not this many, not all at once. So where did they all come from?
"Success breeds success," said Barb Lindquist, a 2004 Olympic triathlete herself.
That might be true, but Lindquist knows a thing or two about breeding triathletes. She runs USA Triathlon's Collegiate Recruitment Program, which seeks out talented collegiate swimmers and runners and eventually turns them into triathletes. The program came into being in 2009, with Jorgensen as its first major success story.
That proof of concept brought more money and resources to the program, which now churns out fresh, young female triathletes, who go on to become internationally successful female triathletes -- at a stunning rate. Of the 15 women currently competing on the international World Triathlon Series circuit, 10 came out of Lindquist's program, including Zaferes, who swam in high school and ran collegiately at Syracuse University.
"Gwen was a large reason why my class [in 2012] and beyond were given the resources we were given," said Zaferes.
In triathlon circles, Jorgensen's story is the stuff of legends. She started out swimming on the Division I team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before switching to track midway through her NCAA career. She earned Big Ten honors in each sport and was almost a good-enough runner to dream of making it on the professional running circuit, but not quite. Instead, she took an accounting job at Ernst & Young when she graduated in 2009. Then along came Lindquist and her triathlon pitch that same year.
"At the time, I had no idea what triathlon was," said Jorgensen.
In fact, she didn't even know how to ride a bike. She'd fall over at stop signs when she tried to unclip from her pedals. The Collegiate Recruitment Program, at the time, wasn't what it is now, and most of Lindquist's work was just in matching up potential athletes with local coaches and offering advice, largely over the phone or by email. So to learn how to ride, Jorgensen turned to local cycling groups and friends of friends to take her under their wings. (On the plus side, that's also how she met her husband, former pro cyclist Patrick Lemieux.)
She learned quickly, and in 2010, in her first triathlon, Jorgensen qualified for her elite license, which allowed her to race as a professional in international races. She slowly gained experience and the points necessary to earn entry into bigger races. The 2011 ITU race in London, which served as a U.S. team qualifier for the 2012 Olympics, was supposed to just be another "learning" event. No one really expected her to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. But she did.
"I went on a leave of absence from Ernst & Young and never went back," said Jorgensen.
With an Olympian as an alumna, recruiting more ex-collegiate athletes became quite easy. The new and improved Collegiate Recruitment Program now identifies talented athletes, assesses and tests them out at various development camps and then puts them into an intensive, hand-holding, learn-how-to-do-triathlon training environment. The focus is especially on those with swimming ability, because, quite simply, it's easier to pick up running and cycling than it is to become a top swimmer.
These newly minted triathletes live together, train together and get mentoring from USA Triathlon's development coach, Jarrod Evans, until the fledglings are ready to spread their own wings.
"At the end, ideally, they move on to one of our national teams," said Lindquist.
While the program is not the only effort being made to develop elite triathletes -- there are also junior programs and a burgeoning women's NCAA effort -- it is certainly the most obvious change that's happened and the most likely reason for the women's dominant results in recent years.
"I'm so envious of the college recruitment program," said True, who came up through the amateur triathlon ranks on her own before the program existed and had to figure out how to get into races and how to excel. "I didn't know the procedure. I didn't know what you were supposed to do."
So why haven't the U.S. men been as successful as the women at the top ranks? There are several reasons. First, and most noticeably, male athletes often get pushed into other sports. In NCAA swimming, which is the biggest feeder sport for successful triathletes, there are more females than males: 12,333 women across all NCAA divisions versus 9,630 men.
"There are far more money-making opportunities for men in sport than there are for women," said Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon's High Performance general manager, meaning the obvious: that male athletes in college and high school are more likely to turn to basketball, football or baseball than sports like swimming. For women, the opportunities are more limited, and swimming -- and, in turn, triathlon -- has more comparative appeal. When the NCAA examined what percentage of its athletes went on to make a professional career out of their sport, the only women's sport that even made the cut was basketball, while men were able to find careers in basketball, football, baseball, hockey and soccer.
According to Lindquist, the men in her program also take "slightly longer to develop" into triathletes and to learn all the little intricacies of international competition. That's partially because the men's races at the top level tend to be a little tighter. At the most recent ITU race in Edmonton, the top 20 men were separated by just over a minute (1:04), while the top 20 women had almost two minutes (1:56) between them. When learning how to ride a bike, what it means to transition and where to be at a certain point, those few seconds can make a big difference. Right now, the women often have a small learning cushion while in competition, and the men do not.
A third reason goes back to the "success breeds success" mantra. The American women, as they continue to rack up victories, now understand what it takes to be the best. After True joined an international training squad a number of years ago, spending the majority of her time abroad with a group of athletes and a high-level coach watching them every day, other American woman soon followed her example, said Schmitz. He said the athletes realized, "If I want to be in this game, I need to up my game."
Today, True and Zaferes (and about a dozen other international triathletes) train with coach Joel Filliol in locations around the world that coincide with the race circuit. And in August, the training mates were competing for that same Olympic spot -- a hazard that's to be expected when it's so tight at the top of the podium among the Americans. But they'd known all along the possibility existed.
"Right after [True earned her Olympic spot, she] came up to me and hugged me and said, 'We'll get you that [third] spot,'" said Zaferes.
The younger teammate is indeed expected to lock down the third Olympic team berth in Chicago. And, once again, it's quite possible Jorgensen, True and Zaferes will sweep another podium and secure the top three places overall in the series. Then there would be no question: The U.S. women's team is the best in the world -- with an ingenious recruiting program paving the way for the future, too.